Proposed bill seeks to punish drug dealers for overdose deaths

Proposed bill seeks to punish drug dealers for overdose deaths

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Local lawmakers are trying to work against what they call the "epidemic of heroin" in Horry County by going after the people at the top, the people selling dangerous drugs that are taking lives at an alarming rate.

However, the criminal justice system is lacking a crucial law that would hold drug dealers responsible for these deaths and keep them behind bars longer.

"I would just like to know who done it, and that we can get justice," said Wendy Dorman.

She said she will never forget the day she found her son dead in her front yard.

"I can't sleep because all I have is flashbacks of seeing him laying there," Dorman said.

Heath Watson, Dorman's son, was just 26 years old and in the prime of his life. An addiction to heroin and one last potent hit ended it all on a rainy night in June 2016.

"He thought he was getting heroin, but it was something else," Dorman said.

She found a syringe in Heath's pocket, and tests later showed it contained fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Dorman said she wants to see the drug dealer held responsible for Heath's death.

"They might not have pushed the needle in him, but they give him something to kill him," Dorman said.

Right now in South Carolina, no law exists that holds drug dealers responsible for the deaths their drugs cause. However, a bill pre-filed in the state Senate would have these individuals charged with involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to serious prison time.

"We are seeing very hot loads of heroin on the streets and resulting in overdoses in a way we have never seen in South Carolina," said Sen. Greg Hembree. "This is not unique to our state. It's a national epidemic. That has sort of uncovered the need for a charge that will fit that kind of conduct."

According to the Horry County Coroner's Office, that kind of conduct has resulted in more than 100 deaths in Horry County alone this past year, and opioid abuse has grown so much that overdose deaths far exceed the number of homicides involving guns in 2016.

"When you do these things sometimes it's a one-way ticket," said Horry County Coroner Robert Edge.

He's seen the effects of the heroin epidemic over and over again, and he finds himself having to explain to loved ones that there is little that can be done right now to hold anyone accountable.

"We go to a lot of families and their question to police, 'Well, can you charge the person that gave it to them?'" Edge said. "Right now, there's nothing in the law books you can charge them with."

Hembree hopes his bill, if it becomes law, will change that.

"If you can get to the person who is cutting the drug, mixing the drugs, that would be a great success," Hembree said. "If you can attack that source, you can prevent more people from getting killed."

However, that's not where this fight stops.

"It's not the silver bullet that's going to change everything," Hembree said. "It's one step in the right direction in the criminal justice system to hold those that sell this exceedingly dangerous drug ... hold them accountable to a consequence that matches the conduct."

Heath's mother hopes Hembree's proposed bill will one day give officers a way to get justice for her son and bring closure for her and her family.

"It's not going to bring him back, but it would help my heart to know that they can't give somebody else something for them to die," Dorman said.

Hembree introduced his bill to the Senate earlier this month. Right now, it's in the hands of the Judiciary Committee. If passed, it could put a drug dealer behind bars for up to 15 years for an overdose death.

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